- Ethics are a fundamental aspect of foreign policy, not an add-on.
- They should be grounded in the relationship between government and the governed.
- This would involve far more engagement with the public to gauge their needs and wants and align policy accordingly.
What do we mean by ethics?
Ethics are about deciding what the right thing to do is, given the circumstances. Foreign policy involves making these choices continually as part of the normal process of government. As such, ethics are not a ‘dimension’ of foreign policy, nor an optional add-on, they are integral to its operation.
Ethics are distinct from laws or rules. There has been a tendency for law to creep into government decision-making as a proxy for ethical reasoning. Decisions on the use of force are subject to legal approval and that is a useful benchmark for what is appropriate; but morality and legality should not be conflated. Breaking the law could sometimes be the right thing to do, to prevent a greater harm or allow the law to evolve. For example, the Independent International Commission on NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 described the operation as “illegal but legitimate” because diplomacy had run its course and it ended the oppression of the Albanian community. David Cameron rejected the idea that one of the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council could veto military action in Syria in 2013, despite that being enshrined in the UN Charter.
British foreign policy-makers often assert they support a rules-based international system. What the above examples show is that we do so because we assume that those rules align with our values. Where they do not, we are willing to break them. For the most part, this is not a problem since we set many of the rules in our favour and they continue to serve our interests. But, with the rise of China and India and a resurgence of authoritarian rule across the world, we face the prospect of an international order whose rules could be hostile to our values.
In short, ethics, not laws or rules, underpin UK foreign policy.
There are many things that influence our sense of right and wrong and what is appropriate behaviour. In the foreign policy realm, two ethical frameworks operate in tandem: Communitarian ethics and Cosmopolitan ethics. For Communitarians, the primary ethical duty of the policymaker is to look after the interests of their citizens. For Cosmopolitans, the aim is to advance the interests of their fellow human beings globally.
After the Cold War, commentators got carried away thinking the second ethic was rendering the first redundant. It was not. States continue to be key actors, even when responding to transnational issues such as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Most people still identify with, and value, their national identity. National leaders have to make choices about how to allocate resources but Cosmopolitanism struggles to explain which to prioritise. If all human beings have an ethical claim on us on the basis of their common humanity, then much of what the state does, from border policing and defence to welfare and social security spending could be seen as unethical since it favours one group in particular. Furthermore, whenever and wherever human rights abuses occur, the UK government would be obligated to respond. That is impractical for a medium-sized power which has suffered two catastrophic economic shocks in recent years.
Cosmopolitanism is useful in encouraging policy-makers to adopt a more long term and less parochial view of their interests. Cosmopolitan ethics favour global public goods like international law, security, development and human rights which help to create a better environment for UK people to live, work and travel within. Yet, with fewer resources due to our relative decline, we now have less scope for international action. We therefore need a clearer rationale for why we act.
The logical basis for a reformulated foreign policy is to refocus on the needs and wants of the British public. This Communitarian approach sees the key ethical relationship as being between the government and its citizens. For that to work, the Integrated Review has to establish a more systematic approach to understanding public attitudes and desires and responding to them. The Review also needs to provide a more rigorous framework for defining the public interest, especially when action is necessary to support this against the tide of public opinion.
A Communitarian foreign policy: engaging the public in foreign policy-making
To strengthen the ethical relationship between the public and the government acting on their behalf, foreign policy-makers need to make greater efforts to solicit public opinions. The government’s loss of a parliamentary vote on Syria in 2013 and the referendum result of 2016 suggest the public is having an increasing influence on foreign policy issues. It is therefore imperative to align foreign policy with public opinion in advance; or anticipate opposition so that steps can be taken to alleviate its effects. Furthermore, the extent of immigration in recent decades means that the British population has a huge resource of linguistic and cultural knowledge from which it can draw, with citizens having family links across the world. As such, engaging with the public could bring practical benefits as well as useful challenge to existing foreign policy.
Doing so entails a four stage process. Firstly, foreign policy-makers must listen to public views on foreign policy dilemmas. This can be done through a combination of surveys, evidence calls, opinion polling, focus groups, town hall meetings, public debates and roadshows. They should then reflect on the feedback they receive. This entails cross-referencing feedback from the public with official assumptions, policy and external sources. To demonstrate that they have listened and reflected, they need to explain the logic of the UK’s policy, how it will change or stay the same following feedback, and how it serves the public interest. They then must respond with sensitivity to the domestic impact of policy actions.
In practice, the public will pay varying attention to foreign policy issues and will be affected by them in different ways. There will also be competing interests, either among different sectors and stakeholders, or between them and the broader national interest. The concept of the national interest is notoriously elusive but is best defined in terms of the public good – that is, the collective safety, prosperity and contentment of the political community of the UK. The challenge is to work out how to balance the particular interests of certain sectors of the economy or society with those of the community as a whole.
To do so, policy-makers need to undertake two types of public engagement. Comprehensive engagement, canvassing the views of the general public, and Targeted engagement, soliciting the opinions of key sectors of the community who have a stake in foreign policy issues as they arise. Targeted engagement allows UK policymakers to understand the impact of UK foreign policy on sub-communities, weigh the costs and benefits to those most invested in outcomes and harness their expertise to improve policy effectiveness. However, this feedback then needs to be checked against the collective good and the broader attitudes of the community as a whole, via comprehensive engagement activities.
Adjudicating between ethical claims
The interests of sub-groups and the collective interest will not always converge and so policymakers need to decide which to favour. As defined above, those interests boil down to physical safety, economic prosperity and contentment.
Each of these categories may support or conflict with one another, either within groups or between them. Thus, a policy that brought benefit to the financial sector or arms manufacturers could bring in tax revenue and, in the case of arms, support a defence industrial base that serves national security interests. Yet, it might result in complicity in human rights abuses and have a damaging effect on the UK’s global reputation (and hence the self-esteem of the community as a whole). Obversely, human rights advocacy abroad could lead to minority communities and their families being targeted by hostile states, impacting on their safety – as in the case of the Russian, Hong Kong and Iranian diasporas.
There is no formula for weighing these considerations as it depends on the specific case. Policy may also have long or short term impacts and so time is a complicating factor. What fuller public engagement would do is provide a backdrop and reference point to assessments of the sub-group and collective interest. Policy-makers could then evaluate whether a given policy would have a net positive or negative impact on each and the degree of alignment may give an indication of its desirability. The following table illustrates this:
However, in many cases the collective interest could be marginal (meaning sub-group interests are in effect the collective interest), or it may be appropriate to favour the particular interest of a sub-group, even if it entailed a collective cost, if it produced a significant benefit to that community. The granting of asylum to dissidents is one example. The key factor here would be to regularly and rigorously check the distribution of costs and benefits.
In short, deciding on what is ethical does not simply mean positing a collective interest and favouring that over international or sub-national interests. Rather, it is about weighing the relative impact of policy on different groups and balancing that with some notion of the collective interest, which itself might be fluid. The diagram below gives a flavour of the process. Sectoral interests feed into each of the three areas. Some will be marginalised whilst others will converge and achieve dominance. The dominant configuration shapes a sense of collective interest. At the same time, mass public opinion looms in the background and the external environment interacts with this understanding.
Overall, a Communitarian foreign policy focuses ethical discussion on how decisions affect domestic groups. This looks very different to a Cosmopolitan foreign policy, which would emphasise the impact on international actors. Nevertheless, it does not preclude altruistic behaviour. Britain’s significant aid budget is a source of pride, which promotes domestic contentment. The advantage of a Communitarian approach is it establishes a framework for judging how to allocate resources ethically, one that fits with the UK’s financial constraints.
The key risks of a Communitarian foreign policy are:
- the marginalisation of minorities and out groups;
- an erratic foreign policy, liable to shift when faced with difficulties; and,
- a refusal to act on the basis of humanitarian need.
The first problem is overcome in the above formulation via the call to engage with and learn from sub-groups, rather than assume their interests are shared with the wider collective.
The second is a challenge, since public opinion can be fickle. But again, this is ameliorated by the emphasis given to reflecting on longer term trends. Furthermore, it is acknowledged that the public interest is not always aligned with public opinion. The latter is canvassed to resist elite capture of foreign policy and challenge assumptions, rather than wholly determine policy. Moreover, paying attention to domestic voices could mean that actions abroad are more sustainable since they align better with domestic attitudes.
Thirdly, Communitarian ethics do not mean that the UK cannot do good in the world. It is clearly in the national interest of a liberal democratic state to live in a stable international order, with more prosperity, less conflict and more freedom. But, our commitment to those public goods should always be linked back to the costs they impose on UK citizens and the benefits they afford them in turn. In doing so, this will set necessary limits on action.
Dr Gaskarth is Reader in Foreign Policy and IR at the University of Birmingham and has published widely on international ethics, British
foreign and security policy, and intelligence.
Image by DFID/Rich Taylor under (CC).
 29 August, Column 1429, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm130829/debtext/130829-0001.htm
 Field, M. ‘Global Britain: supporting the Rules Based International System’, 17 August 2018, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/global-britain-supporting-the-rules-based-international-system; https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/548740/RBIS-S-01_RBIS_Fund_-_RBIS_Programme_Strategy.docx; https://www.gov.uk/government/news/rules-based-international-system-conference; https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/ldintrel/250/25004.htm
 Chalmers, M. ‘Which Rules? Why There is No Single ‘Rules-Based International System’ RUSI Occasional Paper, April 2019, https://rusi.org/sites/default/files/201905_op_which_rules_why_there_is_no_single_rules_based_international_system_web.pdf
 Freedom House reports a 14 year decline in democratic rule, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2020/leaderless-struggle-democracy
 Linklater, A. The Transformation of Political Community. Polity, 1998.
 The Ancient philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, when asked where he came from, is said to have replied he was a ‘kosmopolitês’ or citizen of the world.
 In a June 2020 YouGov poll, 67% of people felt fairly or very proud to be British, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/travel/survey-results/daily/2020/06/25/31f14/2. In a BFPG survey in June 2020, 54% of respondents self-identified as a patriot compared to 40% as a global citizen, https://bfpg.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/BFPG-Annual-Survey-Public-Opinion-2020-HR.pdf
 The analogy often provided is that of a “social contract” between government and the governed, associated with Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The domestic basis to foreign policy ethics was recognised by William Gladstone, who put “Good government at home” as the first of his principles of foreign policy, ‘Right Principles of Foreign Policy’, 27 November, 1879.
 According to the 2011 census, the most prevalent languages other than English were Polish, 546,174, Panjabi, 273,231, Urdu, 268,680, Bengali (with Sylheti and Chatgaya), 221,403, Gujarati, 213,094, Arabic, 159,290. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/language/articles/detailedanalysisenglishlanguageproficiencyinenglandandwales/2013-08-30
 See Edmunds, T. Gaskarth, J. and Porter, R. British Foreign Policy and the National Interest. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2014; Kratochwil, F. ‘On the notion of “interest” in international relations’ International Organization, 36,1,1982: 1-30.
 Contentment includes self-esteem, spiritual health, happiness, and a positive international reputation.
 This triad was recognised as far back as Thucydides, who noted that people act out of fear, interest or honour. The 2015 NSS/SDSR rendered this as security, prosperity and influence. Influence should not be an end but a means, hence why it has been substituted above by contentment.
 Pin-Fat, V. The metaphysics of the national interest and the ‘mysticism’ of the nation-state: reading Hans J. Morgenthau’. Review of International Studies, 2005, 217-236.